A Work In Progress

Oct. 31, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

All was not lost a week ago today, when Bruce Heppler hurriedly called a meeting of all Georgia Tech golfers after the Yellow Jackets “caved in” down the stretch to finish fourth in the United States Collegiate Championship.

It only felt like it was gone.

There were many positives in the fall, a slew of suggestions that the Jackets might make a run at their fourth straight ACC title next spring. But that fall season finale still burns. The bottom fell out to end autumn in a heap. Winter came really quickly for the Jackets, like a N’oreaster missed by forecasters.

Tech’s five scoring golfers were a combined eight-under par through the first 45 holes of the USCC. They were a combined +20 over the final nine.

“There’s disappointment. It wasn’t happy trails after it was over,” said the Tech golf coach. “We immediately talked about it. They were handing out the trophy, and we were talking about what happened. To have five guys struggle like that on a course that they know … as it began to slip away from them they pressed.

“We met immediately and let them know that’s not acceptable. You can’t have stretches like that. You have got to put the brakes on. I gave them a chance to express their feelings.”

And Heppler expressed his. His team doesn’t lack talent. The Jackets entered the season shy on experience, however, save senior James White.

In an erratic fall, even he fell shy of steady Eddie.

White was All-America last spring, but didn’t qualify for Tech’s first tournament of the fall. Even in playing the final three events he couldn’t find consistency in line with expectation. He was four-under par through the first 45 holes of the USCC.

He was five-over on the back nine to close.

Earlier on that final day, a crowning moment appeared there to be had. In their own tournament, at The Golf Club of Georgia, where the Jackets a year earlier strafed a talented field by 27 (think Tech v. Cumberland), the home team led an even meatier field by seven strokes while still out on the front nine.

At one point on the third and final day, Seth Reeves was tied for the tournament lead, and teammates Bo Andrews and White were each a stroke back.

Heppler had a good idea that his team would scuffle from time to time this school year. You don’t replace three seniors (only five players compete in each tournament), including ACC champion Paul Haley and say, “We’re back,” or at least you don’t say it with complete conviction.

Yet the Tech golf coach did not foresee vacillations so wild.

In two of four fall tournaments, almost his entire roster swooned at just the wrong time. In a third tournament, in Iowa, the whole thing was a mess. And in the other, The Brickyard Collegiate, the Jackets beat everybody by 17 shots.

Since that tournament preceded the USCC, Heppler was hopeful that the Jackets had found their rhythm even though team qualifying for the fall finale produced the fourth different Tech lineup in as many outings.

Mind games … golf is one of them.

Time has told Heppler that, and time has filtered his view of the USCC, although not to the point where he’s about to dismiss it. The words up top that jumped out at you when you began reading were his. He wasn’t talking about spelunkers.

“You get caught up in the middle of it all,” he said of the emotional roller coaster recently ridden. “We played four guys that did not start last year, and we’ve always tried to invite the best possible teams that we can. We certainly don’t make it easy on ourselves to win our tournament.

“The reality is if you look at the winners of our tournament, they’ve all been national championship caliber. They probably tried too hard. The kids pointed out that we had the lead in three out of four events with nine holes to go. We stumbled in Iowa, but I think based on not really knowing what to expect [this fall], I’m very pleased with this group. The stuff that I see, the process, the work … we’ll continue to grow.”

Talent will not be an issue. It will come down to mental management, and I’ve never been more impressed than by Heppler’s work in that regard, although if I thought about it hard Bryan Shelton and Kenny Thorne might change my mind.

But golf is on the brain, so it’s Heppler in a tiebreaker.

One of Tech’s two freshmen, Anders Albertson, led the team in scoring this fall with a stroke average of 71.7 and is Tech’s highest ranked player nationally. He was Tech’s leading scorer, or tied for those honors, in the first three events of the fall.

The other frosh, Ollie Schniederjans, tied for sixth place in the Brickyard and but for a disastrous outing in Iowa, his metrics would be near the top of Tech’s charts. Schniederjans was in the USCC, though not counting toward the team score. He was the only one of Tech’s nine golfers to shoot even- or sub-par over the back side on the final day (he shot 35, 1-under).

Redshirt sophomores Andrews and Reeves have it in them as well.

Reeves shot the two lowest rounds of the fall, both 65s, and tied for second in the Brickyard. He’s prone, however, to collapsodic behavior. Over that fateful back nine last week, he had two double bogeys and four bogeys. The tall guy will get that straightened out with help from Heppler and the nation’s top assistant coach, Christian Newton.

Andrews paced the Jackets in the USCC, finishing at -3. He was +1 for the fall.

Sophomore Richie Werenski was even-par for the fall, and although his fall did not match his freshman season (he played in just two of four tournaments and scored in just one), he was the Jackets’ second-leading scorer (72.2).

Seniors William Miller and Minghao Wang each competed for the Jackets this fall, improving upon results from their first three seasons.

They’ve all got time to get their heads right.

They’re free until December, although it’s a good bet they’ll be found around the golf locker room often enough playing ping-pong. You oughta see these guys go at that. We’ll take a peek soon, in fact.

“They’re relentless on the work front. We don’t recruit guys who aren’t talented,” Heppler said. “I encourage all of them to leave [golf] alone maybe as long as Thanksgiving. They look at me like I’m crazy; they’ve never done that. Their golf swing is not going to change much. Be a regular student. This is the one time that they have to do that.”

This team again has the skill set to finish with everyone else in the rear-view. The Jackets just need to get their brains right. The evidence is there.

Be hopeful. Heppler is, even if it took a few days to get back to that point.

“As the days go by you remind them about Macon and closing there with a couple eagles, and about Rory McIlroy’s collapse [in the Masters] and how six weeks later he destroyed everyone at the [U.S.] Open [for an eight-shot win].

“There will be great things ahead. The ball doesn’t know how old they are. Sometimes, their insecurities … talk to the ball.”

This game is played largely between the ears, and college students mature faster in that time of their lives than any other. Here’s betting the Tech linksters are a lot better in the spring at turning a deaf ear to that little white ball.

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